When the Central Community School District in DeWitt began to implement Iowa’s statewide standards, some teachers initially wondered if the Iowa Core represented an education fad that eventually would pass.
Instead, they discovered the standards raised expectations for their students, prompted teachers to work toward shared goals, and led to more meaningful classroom instruction, educators in the eastern Iowa district say.
“I’m serving my students much better today,” said Tami Jaeger, a 17-year teaching veteran in the district. “I wouldn’t be the math teacher I am today if it weren’t for the work we did in getting the Iowa Core implemented.”
Before the standards were put into practice, goals and expectations varied across the district, Superintendent Dan Peterson said.
“We had seen for years that instruction-wise, assessment-wise, we were all over the place,” Peterson said. “We knew we could do better.
“When the Iowa Core came out, we decided it was an opportunity to get everyone on the same page, K through 12,” he said. “We wanted a clear and consistent approach to all kids. Kids deserve that consistency. As a district, we needed to know what kind of education our kids were receiving.”
Iowa lawmakers approved the Iowa Core as a statewide requirement in 2008. Legislators and educators led this shift away from locally determined standards, which had caused inconsistent expectations in schools across the state. The Iowa Core sets appropriate, consistent expectations for all students, regardless of where they live, and leaves instructional decisions to local schools and teachers.
The Central Community School District embraced the standards in part because both teachers and students understand the expectations from one grade level to the next. The Iowa Core also focuses on complex skills, rather than memorization of isolated facts.
“In the past, we would have students read something and then ask them to recount what they read,” said Mike Miller, a sixth-grade literature teacher. “Today, we take into account multiple points of view – compare, contrast, for example. This broadens the experience of our students. Ultimately, students gain a better understanding of how our communities, states and societies work, how we work together to form civilization.”
Jaeger, a math teacher, appreciates the Iowa Core’s focus on having students apply what they’ve learned.
“It lends itself really well to problem-based instruction,” she said. “Instead of just teaching a skill in isolation, you pose a problem to students and let them work it out. It is more authentic, and they remember them better when they find solutions themselves.”
The deeper learning will serve students well in the future, district administrators say.
“The way I learned in school is no longer good enough for kids,” said Amy Wichman, the district’s director of innovation and instruction. “The bar has been raised because we are a global society that is highly competitive. We don’t know what kinds of jobs these kids will have available to them, so we have to teach them differently.”
Teachers who worked in isolation in the past now work together to help students reach the learning goals set by the Iowa Core, Wichman said.
The standards do not diminish the art of teaching, she said.
“Teachers still plan their own units and lessons using their own materials and resources – meeting the needs of students as professional educators,” Wichman said. “The Iowa Core doesn’t just ensure local control, it cannot work without it. Teachers make the ultimate decisions as to what is taught in their classrooms. The standards provide a framework for learning for students and teachers.”
Peterson, the superintendent, attributes much of Central’s success with Iowa Core implementation to the Mississippi Bend Area Education Agency, which “held our hand from step one,” he said.
“When they knew we were ready to go early on, they were great about giving us time, resources and training,” Peterson said.
“Our district is in a completely different place than it was five years ago,” he said. “Our students and teachers are truly excited about what they are doing and the potential for this work. The content, instruction and assessments – once assessments are aligned – will put us in a great place in the state of Iowa, something we can be really proud of.”